Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington have remained tight-lipped about the disappearance of North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, who seems to be yet another high-level defector from the oppressive regime.
Jo Song-gil, the charge d’affaires of the North’s Embassy in Rome, has been missing since early November, weeks before his term was due to end. Italian media reported that Jo, who had gone into hiding with his wife, was under the protection of the Italian government and seeking asylum in the US.
The 48-year-old diplomat’s possible defection comes at a sensitive time when the US and the North are preparing for a second summit between their leaders and the South is anticipating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul.
Over the weekend, US President Donald Trump said that negotiators from Washington and Pyongyang were in talks on where to hold his second summit with Kim, adding that details would be made public sooner or later. In his New Year’s Day address, Kim expressed willingness to meet Trump at any time, though he warned of going a new way if the US misjudged the North’s patience and adhered to sanctions on the isolated regime.
A North Korean propaganda outlet urged the US on Monday to take “corresponding” steps for the “sincere measures” the North has taken toward denuclearization since their first summit in Singapore in June.
Apparently out of concerns over the impact of Jo’s possible defection on the momentum toward the planned highest-level diplomatic events, South Korean and US officials have made an extremely cautious response.
After a daily newspaper reported last week that Jo was seeking asylum in a Western country, the South Korean presidential office said it had no information about the matter.
The US Central Intelligence Agency has referred media inquiries on Jo’s reported asylum bid to the State Department, which has said it is now limited in responding to press coverage.
Pyongyang, which replaced its top envoy in Rome about a week after Jo vanished, has kept silent on his possible defection. But its abrupt decision to cancel a visit to Washington by Kim Yong-chol, a North Korean general and senior ruling party official, which was to come in November, seems to have been related to the matter. The North might have sent a message that Washington should distance itself from Jo’s asylum bid or at least handle the case in a secretive manner.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, urged Jo to come to Seoul in an open letter posted on his blog on Saturday. It is an “obligation, not a choice,” for defecting North Korean diplomats to come to the South to dedicate the rest of their lives to handing over a unified country to their children, said Thae, who served as the North’s deputy ambassador to Britain before his defection.
Despite Thae’s appeal, it seems more likely that Jo would eventually settle in the US, either because he wishes to do so as reported or because the option might have fewer ramifications for the sensitive diplomatic process with the North. His settlement in the US might be kept secret for years, or even decades to come, as in the case of former North Korean ambassador to Egypt, Jang Sung-gil, who has not been seen in public since defecting to the US in 1997.
Still, Jo’s possible defection would be a huge embarrassment for Kim, who has been reaching out to the world over the past year to secure him and his regime a legitimate and normal status in the international community.
It may be inevitable that more North Korean elites, especially those working abroad, will desert their country out of frustration over its oppressive rule and hopes of a better life for their families. What is noticeable is that educational consideration for their children seems to be a key factor behind high-level defections from the North as in the case of Thae. In his letter to his former colleague, Thae suggested that Jo’s son could study at a prestigious South Korean university before going to the US to take a graduate course, explaining educational opportunities given to his wife and children here.
The North’s silence testifies to the fundamental vulnerabilities of the nuclear-armed regime, which has to rely on tight internal control to extend its survival instead of suggesting a bright future to its people.